Spring in Grand Courtyard

The Renovation of a Historic Building

2020 / March

Lee Shan Wei /photos courtesy of Lin Min-hsuan /tr. by Brandon Yen

Good things spring from altruistic deeds. Kuo Su-jen, chairwoman of both Rich Development Co. and the Kuo Mu Sheng Foundation, has devoted herself passionately to the renovation of old houses, in order to renew their faded splendor.

It was a new construction project that unexpectedly led Kuo to undertake the restoration of the former residence of Thomé H. Fang, late ­professor of philosophy at National Taiwan University. As if guided by a mysterious force, upon entering Grand Courtyard she stood in awe of the enigmatic old NTU staff residence. Her penetrating eyes saw exciting opportunities in the midst of dilapidation, and she wanted to give the derelict house, which is nearly a century old, a new lease of life.

From desolation to rebirth

The main building having been damaged by fire, the compound had yielded to weeds and exuded a dismal atmosphere. Ignoring the silent desolation, Kuo donned her safety helmet, and brushing aside the vegetation that choked the path, fearlessly explored the hidden recesses of the place.

“This is an ROT [rehabilitate‡operate‡transfer] project. The tendering process wasn’t all that smooth.” Grand Courtyard is situated in a quiet alley off Section 1 of Taipei City’s Heping East Road, occupying approximately 1.1 acres. The place was once shrouded in mystery. Trees such as towering Formosa sweetgums and verdant pines and banyans surround the main building: an edifice cover­ing 0.3 acres of ground and completed in 1931, when Taiwan was under Japanese rule. Designated a historic building by the Taipei City Government in 2012, Grand Courtyard had at first served as a guesthouse for Japanese naval officers before becoming a primary school for Japanese pupils. In 1952, when its ownership passed to National Taiwan University, Grand Courtyard was transformed into residential quarters for university staff.

From Kuo Su-jen’s taking on the project in 2015, the restoration took four and a half years, during which time Kuo, who subscribes to the principle that restorations should be faithful to the original, allowed no detail, however minute, to escape her supervision. “Because of their age, and because of the fire, the steel trusses had to be replaced.” The removed trusses have been preserved behind the building, offering visitors a glimpse of the past. “If we take a bird’s-eye view, we notice that the main building has a very expansive roof.” Kuo wished to do justice to the building’s original magnificence. She chose not to install a ceiling below the tallest part of the roof, in order to fully expose the wide spans of the roof structure.

“We have almost entirely reconstructed the building, from foundation to roof.” The floor, which was decaying, had sunk in many places. “With a public building, our prime concern is safety.” They left untouched the stone foundation blocks, strengthening them with reinforced concrete. With a view to durability, they opted for a terrazzo floor inlaid with brass strips, creating a plain and smooth visual effect across its wide expanse. The new ceramic roof tiles were also made and fired to look like the originals. “These tiles on the wall—they too were made to the original pattern.” Lining the upper parts of the arched windows are NTU’s iconic ribbed tiles—each with 13 grooves—which impart a pristine grace to the edifice.

Inside the glass-walled restaurant, the corridor leading to the VIP room retains its original arches; it feels like a time tunnel. Slide open the wooden door, and you are engulfed by the fragrance of Taiwan cypress, which pervades the entire space from floor to roof. “These glass panes with ripple patterns are hard to come by now.” The glass sliding doors on the wooden cupboards preserve the charm of half a century ago.

“All of these window frames are made of Taiwan cypress.” The builders at the time had already mastered the mechanism of Western-style sash windows; the window panes can be slid vertically to any height. “Nowadays it’s very difficult to find woodworkers who are skilled in traditional joinery techniques.” They did eventually enlist the services of old masters from Changhua and Chiayi, who slowly and carefully restored the windows by trad­itional means.    

“Without good reason, we will never remove what we’re able to keep.” The mottled look of the outer walls has been deliberately preserved, and green plants are encouraged to climb all over them. In the forecourt, the disused old well is now home to verdurous ferns that usually grow in woodland habitats. The rust-pitted ­anchor plates on the walls are still there, loyally guarding the old house. As for the covered walkway that connects the main building and the adjacent restaurant, all of the wooden canopy has been retained except for the decayed and damaged parts.

Grand Courtyard in full bloom

Looking in through the compound’s jet-black palisade gate, you glimpse a poetic landscape of interlacing shadows. A few steps into Grand Courtyard (opened on 7 October 2019 after its renovation) bring you to an eye-catching poster for an exhibition by the artist Leigh Wen, the first to be staged here. Kuo Su-jen says that the rooms inside the main building have been opened up and are available for exhibitions and other arts events.

“In 2012 a fire destroyed the roof of the building. This is where it started.” Kuo stands in front of Wen’s celebrated large-scale painting Fire, marveling at the way things have turned out. The orange flames in the painting, which covers most of one wall, look all too real, serving as a vivid memorial to the building’s history.

“This is an old work that won an award two decades ago from the New York Foundation for the Arts. We were pleased to find that it fitted the dimensions of the venue perfectly.” Wen is an internationally renowned Taiwanese artist based in the US. The first artist to exhibit at Grand Courtyard, she has painstakingly created many artworks that display dazzling colors and evoke a sense of grandeur. Together, the works bring resplendence to a place newly recovered from the ravages of fire.

In the hall are displayed Wen’s paintings of blooming flowers, which symbolize an auspicious future. Wen’s virtuosic style and distinctive sgraffito technique endow each of her finely painted blossoms with substance and life, and impart a velvety texture. Wen has been awarded two fellowships by the New York Foundation for the Arts and has won a prize in the Lorenzo il Magnifico awards at the Florence Biennale. She has been invited to exhibit at US embassies in various countries, and as a cultural ambassador for the US, has traveled to Africa to teach modern art.

Standing on the central line of the main building and looking to left or right, you see the consecutive rooms extending into the distance like a range of mountains. “I think her works have a grandeur that will command every­one’s attention in this place.” As a collector and now a close friend, Kuo, who is a connoisseur of colors, has long admired Wen’s large-scale, mineral-tinted works, which are both magnificent and finely detailed.

“My childhood and later career have much in common with those of Ms. Kuo.” As the eldest daughters in their respective families, both Kuo and Wen have benefitted from their fathers’ high expectations and worked hard to develop their professional careers.

A haunt for artists and thinkers

Grand Courtyard promises not only visual but also culinary delights. “We commissioned T. D. Lee, the famous Taiwanese architect, to design this glass-walled restaurant.” Lee’s masterful touch has produced a harmony between the new building and its environment: every corner inside is blessed with lovely views of the outside surroundings, while changes in the weather contribute to an ever-varying charm. “We serve afternoon teas and light meals here, as well as various full-course meals.” Believing in the viability of supplying high-quality but inexpensive goods, they hope more visitors will be attracted to Grand Courtyard, where they may linger at their leisure.   

Kuo’s husband, Liu Wen-liang, is chief executive officer at the Kuo Mu Sheng Foundation. Inspired by his father-in-law’s diligence, frugality and honesty, Liu puts these virtues into practice and cherishes everything he has.

“Here we’re planning to establish a museum of Thera­vada Buddhist art, where we may organize talks on Buddhism and other philosophical topics.” Kuo has accrued a rich cultural knowledge, and many of the beloved artworks in her collection will find a home here in this beautiful, rejuvenated place, where visitors will be able to appreciate them. Taipei City will also be graced with another new haunt for artists and thinkers.   

“It is people that give a sense of warmth to a building.” Kuo believes that there are invisible forces drawing together like-minded people who resonate with each other. Kuo and her husband Liu, who are both very neighborly, have encountered many former residents coming back to Grand Courtyard to renew their memories.

Despite having spent more than they will be able to recoup, and despite having the right to use the property for merely a limited period of time, Kuo thinks it is all worth the effort if it makes people happy. “I have a sense of mission and I want to breathe new life into every old house in order to recreate its past splendor.” Time flows quietly on, and patience will eventually be rewarded. Winter’s frosty wind is retreating into the distance, and spring with its warm breezes has stolen upon us.

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